From 12-15 January, the Cayman Islands will once again become the focus of the culinary world as some of the world’s best chefs and most famous brands gather on Grand Cayman for the 2012 Cayman Cookout, supporting the idea the Cayman Islands is the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean.
Earlier this year, the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism started referring to the Cayman Islands as “the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean”.
Certainly a good argument could be presented for such the designation. With more than 160 restaurants, talented chefs from many countries and an impressive variety in cuisine, Grand Cayman is truly a foodie’s delight. Add to that the annual Cayman Cookout food and wine festival that attracts some of the top names in the epicurean world, and the claim of “Culinary Capital of the Caribbean” isn’t far-fetched.
Acting Director of Tourism Shomari Scott believes that from an epicurean standpoint, Cayman deserves the moniker.
“In closed rooms, we’ve been saying that for about a year and a half now,” he said. “We truly believe we’re the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean.”
Scott said the Department of Tourism decided to start using the tag publicly about six months ago and that the private sector-constituted Cayman Islands Tourism Association has also agreed to use it.
Grand Cayman has been known for its culinary offerings, especially in comparison with most other Caribbean countries, for quite some time. However, its image as a culinary destination has really increased in recent years, thanks to The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. Having a high-profile celebrity chef like Eric Ripert put his name to a restaurant here was one part of that. But the Cayman Cookout, which will have its fourth event in January, has been integral in increasing awareness of Cayman’s culinary offerings.
Scott said that as far back as five years ago, when researching the lifestyles of the people who make up the target market for Cayman’s tourism, a common trait started emerging.
“Epicurean interests kept coming up,” he said.
Scott said Cayman targets households with earnings between $100,000 and $300,000.
“A lot of them are foodies,” he said, adding that even many of those in the demographic who don’t identify themselves as foodies cite a destination’s culinary offerings as a decision factor for travel.
The Department of Tourism tried to develop a food and wine festival from 2003 when it launched the Cayman Classic, a weekend-long series of events held at the old Hyatt Regency Hotel. The event occurred twice before Hurricane Ivan caused severe damage to the hotel, closing it down.
Subsequently, The Ritz-Carlton opened in December 2005 and eventually that hotel stepped up and took on hosting a much larger and more involved culinary event in cooperation with Cayman’s Department of Tourism. Since its inception in January 2009, the Cayman Cookout has gotten better and better, attracting bigger names and, very importantly, increasing numbers of overseas visitors.
Scott said the Cayman Cookout has acted as a catalyst to shine a light on all of Cayman has to offer from a culinary standpoint. Partially because of all the overseas journalists that attend the Cayman Cookout, the strategy is working.
“We definitely see a lot more buzz about it now,” he said.
That “buzz” has led to more ticket sales for Cayman Cookout events.
Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman Communications Director Melissa Ladley said that through 1 December, tickets sales were 50 per cent higher than at this time last year.
“The event is not only selling more, it’s selling much earlier,” she said. “To date almost all of our purchasers are from North America. Our only concern at this point is that Cayman residents aren’t disappointed as certain events will definitely sell out before year end.”
So far, the Cayman Cookout hasn’t been a big profit maker, but it has certainly added to The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman’s mystique.
“When conceiving the resort, one of our goals was to offer truly one
ind experiences that guests could not find anywhere else,” Ladley said. “Cookout unquestionably delivers on this. Where else could visitors learn how to make a fresh ceviche with Eric Ripert while standing on Seven Mile Beach with Anthony Bourdain sitting two chaise lounges down drinking a Heineken?”
The mystique-building aspect of the event helps raise awareness of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman and the Cayman Islands.
“Cayman Cookout is always an exciting news peg as we head into high season,” said Ladley. “Our relationships with the headline chefs help promote both Cayman and our resort to their fans and followers. On one day alone, a @CaymanCookout Tweet inspired retweets and spin off banter among the chefs that resulted into well over 2.5 million impressions. Having Jose Andres praise Cayman as paradise is the kind of endorsement you simply can’t buy.”
Beyond raising awareness, the Cookout also drives repeat business to the resort.
“We’ve had couples come to Cookout in January and return in summer with their children,” said Ladley. “We also actively market Cookout to our guests throughout the year so that they can make plans to return. We have several guests who have come to Cookout all three years so far who are expected to return in January.”
Since it was established, the Cayman Cookout has been a “labour of love” for the Ritz-Carlton, even if it hasn’t made money. That needs to change, Ladley said.
“While Cayman Cookout will always enhance The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman mystique, it must evolve into a sustainable business model,” she said. “That’s why sponsorship, on both a local and international level, is critical to the continued success of Cookout.”
The economics of the event has also caused The Ritz-Carlton to look more closely at the costs of individual events. For example, one of the most well-received events in the 2011 Cayman Cookout was the picnic at Starfish Point.
“The Starfish Point event from Cayman Cookout 2011 was special for guests as it’s such a beautiful location,” said Ladley. “People really felt transported to a different place and time as well; it was an ideal showcase for some Cayman culture and heritage elements.”
But the picnic at Starfish Point won’t take place in 2012.
“The event was extremely expensive to produce as there is no infrastructure at Starfish Point, and by necessity the ticket price had to be relatively high compared to other Cookout events.”
Ladley said The Ritz strives “to give visitors a quintessential Cayman experience that celebrates the natural beauty of the
Islands” and that there are other ways of delivering this without losing any of the magic for the guests.
“For example in 2
012 the Saturday evening cocktail event will be making fresh ceviche with Eric Ripert in the majestic Oasis Cabanas at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman right on Seven Mile Beach,” she said. “The price will make this event accessible for many more visitors who will enjoy cocktails with the Cayman Cookout host before heading off to an unforgettable dinner party at Camana Bay.”
Year-round culinary awareness
The Cayman Cookout has become the centrepiece of a much larger event, Cayman Culinary Month.
That latter has grown from two iconic events – the Cayman Cookout and Taste of Cayman – to feature an impressive line-up of new events in 2012, many of which focus on local food culture.
However, the Cookout remains the most important event of Culinary Month, one that directly benefits more than just The Ritz-Carlton. For instance, not all the visitors coming to the Cayman Cookout in 2011 stayed at The Ritz-Carlton; some stayed in other hotels, others stayed in condominiums.
Scott said that in January 2011, Cayman had more stay-over visitors for the month than any year since 2001, something he attributed at least partially to the Cayman Cookout, but also to the expanded format of Cayman Culinary Month.
With all Cayman has to offer from a epicurean prospective, Scott’s hope is that tourists will think “every month is Culinary Month” in the Cayman Islands. He also hopes Cayman’s rising reputation as a culinary destination can help attract tourists all year long.
“Some people think that Caribbean destinations don’t have the quality of food that other places have,” he said. “We want them to know that they don’t have to lower their food expectations when they come to the Cayman Islands.”